My first profoundly negative response to the physical and spiritual being known as Joaquin Phoenix happened three and a half years ago, during a New York Film Festival screening of Paul Thomas Anderson‘s Inherent Vice (’14). I decided right away that his (or more precisely author ThomasPynchon‘s) Larry “Doc” Sportello, a mutton-chopped, sandal-wearing private detective, was mostly a lazy collection of slumbering mannerisms — slurry speech, lackadaisical manner, etc.
Then came Phoenix’s pot-bellied New England professor in Woody Allen‘s Irrational Man (’15) and again I said to myself, “I don’t like this guy…this is another Phoenix-playing-Phoenix performance…do I really have to hang with him?”
And then in Garth Davis‘s Mary Magdelene, Pheonix played the first graybeard, seen-better-days Jesus in motion picture history — a Nazarene who looks at least 47 or 48 years old, or roughly 15 years older than the Real McCoy was when he died on Calvary — and again I went “Oh, Jesus effing Christ…here we go again.”
So it really means something when I say that Phoenix’s sullen, barely verbal performance as a graybeard dadbod in Lynne Ramsay‘s You Were Never Really Here (Amazon, 4.6) didn’t bother me that much. Because the film is so good.
You Were Never Really Here wasn’t just the strongest film I saw in Park City — half narrative, half fever-dream — but the first intensely distinctive, high-style art film to open in 2018. “It’s bloody and gooey, bothered and nihilistic, but it’s so beautifully shot and unto itself, so self-aware and finely controlled — an arthouse rendering of a Taken-style flick. It was the only Sundance ’18 film that I heard applauded as the closing credits begin, and the only one that has found the kind of acclaim that Call Me By Your Name and The Big Sick did last year.”